fri 17/09/2021

St Matthew Passion, Arcangelo, Cohen, BBC Proms review – journey to the end of night | reviews, news & interviews

St Matthew Passion, Arcangelo, Cohen, BBC Proms review – journey to the end of night

St Matthew Passion, Arcangelo, Cohen, BBC Proms review – journey to the end of night

Bach's great Gospel tragedy crowns a Proms season of hope and healing

Sorrow to serenity: Louise Alder, Iestyn Davies and ArcangeloAll images by Chris Christodoulou/BBC

No disrespect to Sakari Oramo and his colleagues in tomorrow’s farewell jamboree, but I wonder whether this performance should have featured as the Last Night of the Proms. After all its terror, grief and sorrow, the St Matthew Passion ends with such a gentle and healing leave-taking (“Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh”) that it would surely capture our pandemic travails across the past two years.

Not that the Arcangelo choir and players, then or at any point during Bach’s inexhaustible miracle, ever skimped on drama and impact. 

Once more, after last week’s spectacular with the Monteverdi Choir, big – well, big enough, with almost 40 singers – choral forces returned to the Royal Albert Hall in music that demands pinpoint switches between roof-shaking grandeur and microscopic intimacy. Add to Arcangelo's voices and instruments (pictured below) a blazing constellation of British soloists, plus alert, vigorous but never unduly rushed direction from the ensemble's conductor-harpsichordist Jonathan Cohen, and this against-the-odds Proms season boasted another night to remember and to cherish. This evening was a special gift. Gripped, touched and delighted, the audience understood it. I last saw Bach’s divine but all-too-human tragedy of Jesus’s betrayal, trial and execution here in Peter Sellars’s much-disputed staging with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil. Although moments of it absolutely floored me, the insistence that performers should physically act out every emotion that the music so irresistibly conveys sometimes pushed the atmosphere beyond the “ritual” Sellars sought and into melodrama. No such danger here, with a relatively conventional array of the two choirs and orchestras at Cohen’s flanks, soloists (with scores) who came front-stage for their numbers, plus the – welcome and telling – chorale-strengthening forces of the choristers of St Paul’s Cathedral, stage right for the first half. Players stood for their solos: sometimes close enough to singers for the sense of a to-and-fro chamber duet, but not invariably. Although, in the modern manner, relatively brisk in his tempi and light in his textures, Cohen – his own harpsichord continuo balanced by Tom Foster’s organ – eschewed gimmickry. 

At first I even feared that an overly traditional, even staid, aura might descend as the soloists (with scores) trooped onstage one after the other in old-school oratorio style. Soon enough, however, the energy and engagement of singers (and chorus) forestalled any risk of soporific reverence. Above all what we got, from the opening “Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen” onwards, was a tense choral dialectic. Cohen (pictured below) thrillingly launched the two bodies of voices into an ever-changing conversation that could erupt into open warfare or quieten into grieving harmony. As for the soloists, a dream team guided us through the nightmare journey from Last Supper through Crucifixion to Entombment. Stuart Jackson’s Evangelist proved a persuasive and involving storyteller, making the words enact their meaning in his every well-shaped and forcefully projected phrase. Matthew Rose’s Christ, meanwhile, moved and commanded from the opening words of his first recitative. Every rock-like syllable of his baritone-shaded bass helped anchor the drama in a near-Wagnerian mood of foreboding and fatefulness: a heroic Jesus, perhaps, but one whose fortitude made his spasms of vulnerability all the more stirring – even overwhelming, with the forsaken cry of “Eli, Eli, lama asabthani?”. Among the other soloists, counter-tenor Iestyn Davies signalled the wonders to come from the moment that his “Buss’ and Reu’” aria floated dreamily out into the vast spaces of the hall with no loss of focus or feeling. Last night’s entire cast rose to the occasion, but Davies’s alto arias and recitatives – so massively secure in their tone and articulation, but so carefully expressive at every turn – spellbound the auditorium time and time again. 

Louise Alder seemed a touch overawed in her initial soprano aria, “Blute nur, du liebes Herz”, especially near the top, but soon she had the measure of this always-taxing space and quickly found a lyric sweetness buttressed with authority. Tenor Hugo Hymas ranked as the rookie in this all-star ensemble but, by the time of his anguished exchanges with the choir as betrayal looms (“O Schmerz!”), he mastered a compelling strain of mingled tenderness and plangency. Baritone Roderick Williams – more luxury casting – announced in the plaintive, yearning but richly modulated phrasing of “Gerne will it mich bequemen” an introspective depth that would come further to fruition in the second half. 

Meanwhile the Arcangelo players – oboes, flutes, the violins (Sophie Gent and Matthew Truscott) who led both orchestras – stood proudly for one eloquently delivered solo passage after another. All of them, though, rested on the firm foundation of the double choir – nicely complemented by the clear, disciplined and piercing young forces from St Paul’ (pictured below). In the chorales, never soothing punctuation marks but knots of dramatic change and crisis in their own right, Cohen drew out a vast spectrum of colours, from the light, swift and springy entrance of the great Passion theme in “Erkenne mich, mein Hüter” to the deepening contrapuntal tapestry of guilt and hope in “O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde gross”. In the second act, as the drama quickens, the solo contributions added, if anything, an extra layer of intensity. In this venue, with this panoramic configuration, we could never expect the close-up electric charge of some smaller-scale Passions. But the singers still wielded all the skill and presence to grab and hold us. It seems invidious to cherrypick highlights with such all-round excellence on show, but with two transcendent dialogues for voice and violin – Iestyn Davies and Sophie Gent’s “Erbarme dich”, followed by Roderick Williams’s and Matthew Truscott’s “Gebt mir mein Jesum wieder” – the hall shrank into a recital room where every gesture and inflection truly made its mark. Louise Alder made a triumphal, heartbreaking return with “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” while Jonathan Manson’s viola da gamba gave a lovely, searching commentary on Williams’s fervent and glowing “Komm, süsses Kreuz”.

As the climax of crucifixion and entombment neared, struck and passed, the choirs’ role as interpreter and interlocutor came to the fore with jolting, hard-edged interjections and chorales. Lines struck home with a mortified sense of pain, edge and bite, rather than the tranquillising monumentality of old-style choral Bach. By the time they blessed us with the parting “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder”, though, Cohen and his troops had enveloped their audience in a hard-won serenity that filled the hall, and filled the heart. 

Here was a huge Proms statement, made with no showy stunts but with tremendous warmth, generosity and finesse at a moment poised – as on some Good Friday in Leipzig 275 years ago – between memories of anguish and hopes of renewal. And everyone can share it. If such a night doesn’t prove how much we need this festival, what will? 

Comments

Wonderful review

Yes indeed. Williams strangely subdued in lower register for me though....

Love Williams' rich tones and facial communication but I though Stuart Jackson was the stand out star. He contributed most drama as you should expect but with a clarity and sureness of touch, intonation and shading that I have never heard before from any Evangelist. Bravo!

I agree. A wholly enthralling evening. But I also agree about Williams (one of my favourite singers) - I was miles away and could hardly hear him in his lower register. In fact I thought the part was a bit too low for him.

A profoundly memorable experience. Not just one of the finest Proms but one of the most moving musical experience I've had in 6 decades of concert-going.

I am a regular concert-goer and opera lover but this was my first time at the Proms and in the Royal Albert Hall. What a magnificent scenario for a fantastic performance. The concert was memorable, I want to add that I was jaw-dropped when I saw the exquisite level of attention of the audience; i appreciated the lack of coughs and noises and that many spectators stood still for more than three hours on their feet without moving an inch.

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters